Back to the Basics: Tips from a Former Teacher

For the past two years, I’ve been handling office operations and placements for junior candidates at Wisnik. Before coming here, I worked in education, first teaching ESL and then teaching preschool. While that may seem like unorthodox preparation for working with law firm professionals, I’ve found that many of the things I picked up over the years can be applied to both helping law firms find the right talent and to helping candidates throughout the interview and hiring process.

  1. Growth Mindset. In her book of the same name, psychologist Carol Dweck differentiates between those who have a “Fixed Mindset” (the belief that ability/talent/intelligence are something one is born with) and “Growth Mindset” (the belief that these things can be developed). People with Fixed Mindsets often avoid challenges, because the possibility of failure hurts their sense of self-worth. People with Growth Mindsets seek out challenges, because they see them as opportunities to grow and improve. While I used to focus on instilling a Growth Mindset, I now focus on identifying it. When interviewing candidates, especially junior talent, I listen for what they already know how to do as well as for their ability to pick up new things and to apply old skills to new situations. If you’re a new graduate without a lot of work experience and someone asks you during an interview about a skill you don’t yet have, my advice is to tell them, “I haven’t done that yet, but I’m excited to learn.” And mean it! If you’re hiring, keep in mind the candidate’s ability to grow and take on challenges even if they haven’t yet touched upon all the role’s responsibilities. Someone who is eager to learn and contribute will usually do a better job than a more experienced candidate who isn’t interested in expanding their skillset.
  2. Presentation. I had a two-week training session at a charter school where we had to practice extremely basic student interactions: how to pass out papers, how to phrase instructions for filling out a worksheet and how to tell a child to stop talking. These things sound incredibly simple, but often small modifications in how you move, speak and organize your words can make a huge difference in how others respond to you, whether it’s a group of wiggly five-year-olds or a room full of lawyers. Most of us have a small bad habit or two that hurts our professional presentation and it’s often something we’re unaware of. Maybe it’s fidgety hands, or overuse of the word “like.” Practice a few interview questions with a friend and ask them for feedback, or record yourself on your phone, to identify areas for improvement. Then practice some more until you break the habit – your friend can ding a bell every time you say “um” or stare at the ceiling in the middle of a question. I especially recommend this for recent grads who are trying to land their first professional position.
  3. Clear & concise is always best. My first teaching job was as an ESL teacher, and there is no better practice for learning how to give clear and simple explanations than when your students can only understand half of what you say! A good rule of thumb is that the more words that come out of your mouth, the smaller the percentage of those words that will actually be absorbed. The candidates who we get the best feedback on are the ones who know how to get to the point and focus their words on providing important examples. This goes for your resume too – someone will have a much better idea of your accomplishments after reading a well put together one-page resume than they will after skimming a five-page resume.
  4. Answer the question. My high school AP English teacher would always say that AP stood for “Answer the Prompt.” In other words, if you aren’t actually answering the question you’ve been asked, you’re not doing it right. This seems to be a struggle for many people, from the smallest children up to the most experienced professionals. When I worked with little kids, I might ask the class, “What did you learn about sea turtles today?” only to have a child raise their hand and tell me, “Cheetahs are really fast!” Now, sometimes I’ll ask a candidate a question in an interview and their answer will seem like a response to a totally different question. This makes the candidate look like they aren’t listening, or like they’re avoiding something. Pay attention and answer the right question, not the question you wish you were asked.

Sometimes, the basics that most of us learned early on in our education are just the keys we need to succeed in our careers!

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